The tension is building amongst the kiwis as the arguments hot up both for and against two great Irish links courses. The unfortunate candidate supported by the pithy weight of my stilted prose is Ballybunion. Up my sleeve, though, is not only a persuasive argument or two but a genuine affection for this seaside town (he says as he trades emails with an international member currently summering in Ballybee: “I am headed out for early evening 18 under a perfect sky and in a mild breeze. Golf does not get better than here.”).
What makes this a most difficult assignment, though, is that comparing the merits of the great courses at Lahinch and Ballybunion is like a mother comparing one of her children with another. I fear that, despite all those ranking lists which seem to come out almost bi-weekly, Lahinch may well be the golden child in this South West Irish family.
Lahinch has been bestowed with land more suitable for golf than perhaps anywhere on the planet. Towering dunes climb up the spine of the course with the Atlantic ocean to the west and an estuary, bordered by ancient ruins of Dough castle, to the nor’east. Inland, the terrain rumples randomly off the shoulder of the high dunes creating a manageable but equally maniacal expanse of fairways.
Unlike many a golden child, Lahinch takes it’s god given talents and utilizes them to reach true potential. Aside from natural features and a climate perfectly suited to fast running fescues, Lahinch embodies the best of great golf architecture from across many generations.
Designed originally by Old Tom Morris during a three-month excursion to the West of Ireland (he was so besotted at the summer town of Lahinch that it took his daughter to travel and bring him back to Scotland), the course has had various adaptations since this 1892 rendition. Most notably, in 1927 the Good Doctor, Mackenzie, was brought in and made substantial changes to the course. Whilst many of the Mackenzie holes were altered over the years and two greens lost to erosion, Martin Hawtree has recently performed significant work that wonderfully restores the course.
Old Tom’s naturalism, interpreted as modern-day eccentricity, is the most polarizing part of Lahinch. This eccentricity manifests in the two Morris holes entirely retained in MacKenzie’s layout - the 4th and 5th. The 4th, Klondyke, funnels initially between two large dunes before the second shot plays entirely blind over a towering mound. From atop the mound the golfer longingly looks down for the whereabouts of his ball, hoping it has bounded down the turf towards an ever-so-natural green site nestled before the roadside dyke. An all world par five, the Klondyke is one hole unlikely to ever be replicated in our safety conscious world.
The old fellow's contribution continues on the 5th with a dell green nestled between two dunes with only a small white stone to guide the way. The picture below shows the depth of the green looking from side on. Sensibly the grass has been cut so balls will funnel back to the putting surface, as evidenced by our playing partner who eagerly flew his tee shot high into the bank behind the green only for it to fortuitously bounce back to fifteen feet from the cup.
Whilst some describe these two relics as gimmicky and a barrier to greatness, I entirely disagree. There is nothing better than striking a perfect shot, high over a dune, and walking up with anticipation to see the outcome.
As seen around Ireland, it can be very difficult to route holes across dunes as dramatic as those at Lahinch. Heroic carries, steep approach shots or narrow fairways can become tiresome when played in the most powerful prevailing winds. And so the one tenant of Mackenzie’s famous commandments that is most noticeable at Lahinch is the wide playing corridors. Holes are not cramped in between the dunes, nor is the routing overtly adulterated by the search for picturesque views. The holes flow naturally in, over, and out of the high dunes to keep even the most challenged golfer enjoying themselves. The course committee and superintendants deserve much credit for keeping the rough whispy in crucial parts of the course such as over the blind saddles on three, six and seven (pictured below) as well as on the banks flanking the Klondyke fairway. It’d be a shame for these holes to be ruined by frustrated golfers spending minutes looking down searching in the long grass.
The Lahinch v Ballybunion debate can almost be boiled down to the respective sixth holes. Both are utterly world class. At Lahinch, a blind drive over a rise must be played to the left side of a wide fairway area to shorten the hole – particularly so into the sea breeze. From there, a golfer is drawn to the green, perfectly framed by dunes well off to either side and the Atlantic as the backdrop. Standing over the second shot to the sixth, even the most seriously score obsessed golfer will pause for a moment and contemplate the beauty of the challenge ahead.
Above, the sixth green on a wet day, framed by the dunes and then below looking from the back of the green in brighter conditions.
The stretch from the third through to the thirteenth is played through the most dramatic of land and is widely revered. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that despite a stretch of world class holes, through parts of this section the rhythm of the course feels slightly off. Curiosity got the better of me one evening as I experimented playing the seventh hole to an old punchbowl green to the right. To be sure, it was a far easier proposition and from beside the old green I found a teeing area to play the ninth from an intriguing angle. Admittedly, was the seventh nestled between the dunes it would not only lack the visual appeal of the ocean but the challenge of navigating the most windswept approach to the spectacular existing green would be lost. The same conclusion was not reached for the dual 11th holes. The original Mackenzie hole with a green burrowed from the wind in a natural compression is not only a great hole but it is a more seamless fit and is not hampered by the maintenance issues of Hawtree’s new hole closer to the ocean.
This stretch features is one of the best holes in the world. Thirteen is a short four measuring only 280 yards in length. Mackenzie, notable for holes of this ilk such as 10 at Royal Melbourne West or 9 at Cypress Point, may have designed his very best at Lahinch. This gem is understated featuring only two greenside bunkers and no devisively punishing places per se, only wild undulations on both the fairway and green. The green has three tiers, each with a nose in it’s centre that feel like ripples mirroring the land at the front of the surface. The thirteenth could fill a chapter of a golf architecture book, complete with topographic maps outlining the natural undulations that make this hole truly one of a kind.
The back nine plays over less dramatic land but the subtle use of dunes to block one’s vision, along with rumpled fairways and shallow greens make these holes appealing, particularly to the purist. The photograph below of the shallow tenth green shows how the undulations will repel a weakly struck second shot.
For all of the magical landforms, the jewel in Lahinch’s crown must be it’s greens. Surrounded by short grass and careful placement of bunkers, the imagination and skill of all golfers are challenged on every hole. From the very first green with it’s slyly steep slant from back to front a golfer realizes that, upon reaching the greens, his challenge is only half complete. Overall many of the greens would not be out of place on other Mackenzie courses as artistic shapes and natural slants continually dictate the best angle of approach.
The combination of width, eccentricity, an intelligent routing, visual challenge and beautiful landforms makes Lahinch a treasure of the golfing world. No matter whether you’re young, old, strong, frail, a touring professional or even out with your hickories, it is demonstrably fun.
Having spent a week immersed in golf down here we were fortunate enough to meet dozens of golf enthusiasts from New Zealand, Australia, the US and of course locals. Sure as eggs, the very mention of Lahinch made each of their faces light up and, animatedly describe how much fun they had playing there. Lahinch may not be the hardest golf course in Ireland or the best maintained. Nor is it the most beautiful. But, for all that, it may well be the very best.